International Modernism: The U.S. and Europe

International Modernism in the post World War II period was marked by a shift of material culture from production to consumerism. The consumption based culture made extensive use of graphic design and typography to create a strong corporate culture.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early-mid twentieth century, existing and emerging nations (like Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavian countries and U.S.) tried to create, express and promote their individual national identities through design (Sparke, 95). These identities were meant to demonstrate the status and power of a nation, to its citizens and to the world. Design was used as the “commercial face” of the identities, thus resulting in national style. While each one of these countries had their own unique national expressions, France and U.S. became the main proponents of consumerism.

France developed its national identity through the production and marketing of luxury items specifically targeted towards women. This created a strong consumer culture based on design. This was expressed in the Paris Exposition of 1925 where a retail culture, with shop fronts and department stores’ pavilions displaying fashionable and exotic merchandise, was evident (Sparke,106).

Around the turn of the century, the national identity of U.S. was that of a consumer society, defined by the wants and desires of the marketplace. Mass circulation of magazines, department store, shop windows and advertisements were seen as part of the ‘American way’- a consumer culture (Sparke, 104). In the New York World’s Fair of 1939, U.S. focused upon integrating design into its private corporate image, showcasing its large corporations- General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, AT&T etc. These formed the country’s identity based on industrial design, technology and consumption (Sparke, 108).

As other nations followed consumerism, Germany and Switzerland set up standards for graphic design and typography known as the International Typographic Style which was seen in books, posters, ads and trademarks. It was an exploration of visual components of graphic expression and their use in influencing large masses of people (Raizman, 277). There was a strong need for clarity in word and symbol to break barriers of language. Graphic design began to move away from illustration, photography and color. Ideas were communicated universally and effectively with simple reductive means. Swiss artist Armin Hoffman’s 1958 poster for performances at the State Theatre in Basle shows the use of different lines forming associations to stage, music and dance with a brief phrase “Are you a subscriber?” (Raizman, 279). This is a good example of communicating information through symbols and minimum words. Corporations needed international identification, and global events such as the Olympics called for universal solutions which the Typographic Style could provide.

During this period, many large multinational corporations adopted consistent policies towards design which translated into corporate culture that the employees of a company could identify with, and that provided performance guidelines to the company. The development of corporate culture led to the subordination of the individual to the company. Trademarks such as those for IBM, Knoll Corporation, ABC etc. became an important part of the corporate culture.


Is there an emerging predominant national design style/philosophy in U.S. at this time? What is it focused on? Is it being used to influence the corporate culture?
Weigh the positive and negative effects of having a corporate culture.

Does graphic design, specifically in signage, today have influences from the International Typographic Style? Do you notice any relationship between the two?